Second Life the Matrix?

November 29, 2006

The disturbing popularity of SL

One more roundup post. Several students reacted to the SL phenomenon with a mixture of curiosity, discomfort and unbridled fear. As Bill Clinton was wont to say, “I feel your pain.” The fast growth should be troubling if for no other reason than the fact that the environment fostering that growth is entirely synthetic. When we choose that much artifice over the real, we really should contemplate the choice we’re making.

As Rob shared, it just creeps him out. Why? I think this question underlines all our other questions about SL’s explosive growth.

Clay postulated that SL is in some ways the next step from MySpace toward a Matrix-like simulated reality.


As we discussed in class, SL has its first millionaire, and these are real U.S. dollars, the kind with which you can buy houses, boats and cars. Bling. What does it mean when someone can become a real estate tycoon in virtual world and parlay that into tycoon status in the real world? I honestly don’t know, but I think it begins to suggest a question as old as Tibetan monks: What does it mean to be human?

From CNN: “Anshe Chung, a real-estate tycoon in the digitally simulated world known as Second Life, has apparently become the first virtual millionaire–i.e., someone whose holdings in a make-believe world are legally convertible into genuine U.S. currency worth more than $1 million.”

Chung’s announcement of having reached the $1 million mark. She is a German citizen born in China.

Entrepreneurism & the curriculum

November 29, 2006

Incorporating business and marketing into journalism and communication curricula

Several of you liked the idea of marrying some of what goes on in the business school with our curricular experience over here in Communication. In fact, you REALLY liked the idea. The way course plans are set up now, you don’t have time, you’re not incented to pursue courses in business and marketing. This means we need to make room in the curriculum for you to be able to take courses across the street, coincidentally named, “Opportunity Drive.”

Jeff gave three cheers to the idea by pointing out what a “meritocracy” or “technocracy” the jobforce and marketplace have become. Loyalty to a company for its own sake is no longer a benefit; in fact, it can be professional suicide. So what skill sets and knowledge bases do you need to succeed out there?

Amanda said something I really like. She talked about her ability to think critically, to read analytically, to communicate clearly. She is, therefore, much more able for any job than had she learned only skills and fact sets relevant to one job or industry or field. That’s what I want to hear and see. If you can do those three things, you will succeed, regardless of the job or field you choose. Now if we layer on top how to start and run a small business, how to identify opportunity, how to manage people . . . We give arm you that much more to determine your own future rather than merely reacting to trends and topicality.

Thanks, guys. You’ve made my day. An educator gets so few affirmations like these, that our students are seeing the forest, not just the trees.

Examples of local, if not hyperlocal

November 29, 2006

Exploring places and spaces

Audrey and Rachel each provide examples of newspapers with Web sites that are focusing on local fare. Rachel points out how difficult it is with painfully finite resources to do quality hyperlocal journalism when there are so many other demands on these small staffs’ time. She points to News Publishing Co.’s site in her hometown,, which carries only the top stories from that week’s paper. That’s sad, and think of how much better Curley’s Naples market has it than the Sentinel’s readership.

Rachel also notes that advertisers in her hometown indicate a preference for positive, community news over hard news. Where should that take us? To refer to the previous post’s point about navigation, I think that is the answer. It doesn’t mean that we do less hard news. It should inform, however, where we put the hard news and how we present the hyperlocal.

Audrey really likes her hometown paper’s site, She said she checks it every day even though she’s physically here in Rome because, she says, “I care about the local news.” So we should re-think “locality” as a space-based term. The video from Friday’s football games and the story about Betty Sue’s famous chocolate cake are important to Audrey because “I care about them,” she wrote in her post. This is real.

I would like all of us to think of communities we belong to, that we traffic in, that are important to us, but that aren’t necessarily in our same physical locality. The one that immediately comes to mind for me is my online learning community, JoMC 711, which includes really smart folks from Richmond, Va., to Rome, Ga., and many points in between. Few of them I have met face-to-face, yet we meaningfully interact on a daily basis. What about you? What is “local” for you?

The limits of hyperlocality

November 29, 2006

The wonderful froth of engagement

Wow! A froth of engagement here at Wandering Rocks, and for that I thank the Berry students. Great discussion on the RIAA’s oligopoly, on the importance of entrepreneurship in the future (and the present) of undergraduate communication curricula, on the discomfort of seeing so much of the physical world so quickly migrating into the virtual ether of Second Life, and on the balance between small “j” journalism of hyperlocality and big “J” journalism that seeks to meaningfully cover the world.

Carly asked a valuable question: Could a news organization focus so much on the local that it fails in its reponsibility to inform its readership of important news and events beyond the local sphere? Curley responded to this himself when he posted to his own blog about the FastCompany article. He agrees with Carly, actually, in saying that an emphasis on Little League and even the high school prom does not excuse a newspaper from covering, for example, Darfur.

Stefanie, in fact remarked on Curley’s rejoinder, saying she appreciated his elaboration of the multiplicity of things an online newspaper could do to present hyperlocal news, and she cited her own local paper’s blanket coverage of high school football. There really is so much more local papers could do to “out-local” the competition.

Which brings me to Tricia’s warning, that perhaps there IS such thing as overkill. Too much content in too many places can confuse, and confusion results in the loss of readers. Agreed. This dramatizes a point from earlier in the course, that navigation isn’t a feature of a Web site, it IS the Web site. So both Tricia and Rob are correct. There is no such thing as overkill, provided it is organized and arrayed in meaningful, easily navigable ways. Excellent point, and I think Tricia for it.

Alrighty, then, how much is the right amount? Laura helps us out here: Listen to your audience, another refrain from throughout the course. (You guys are good!) Perhaps the fact that Curley’s “Nerdery” listens to its readers was the most valuable takeaway from the article. Allow our audience to inform how much content, what kinds of content, what applications and even frequency of update. This is ant theory: Where is the sugar? Follow the pheremones. What are people interested in? What are they talking about? Another excellent point.

See how this works? I drop a little sugar into the blogosphere. We all find it, start dropping the pheremones. Others follow the trails, easing the intellectual workload of us all, and the de-centralized network informs us all. I’m actually sitting here reading your comments getting smarter! This is awesome. Information really does want to be free.


An example of a social network diagram

Hyperlocality and small “j” journalism

November 27, 2006

More thoughts on the future of journalism

FastCompany this month published, “Hyper-local Hero,” about multimedia journalist Rob Curley. (Make sure you check out Curley’s response to the article.) It produced for me an epiphany regarding where online journalism is headed, one of those rare moments of clarity and excitement and fear. First the clarity.

indy jones

Chuck Salter’s story on Curley, “a nerd from Kansas” who has helped newspapers transition to online with dramatic results, has me returning to notions of locality, albeit in new, distributed contexts. A few Xs and Os from Curley’s playbook:

>>Make your site so cool and important to people that they talk about it they way they talk about having a great park near where they live . . . a local amenity.

>>Develop an uncanny feel for what matters to people and translate that knowledge into imaginative, indispensable tools that forge a connection and habit with readers.

>>Drill down, way down. There is no such thing as overkill. There is always room for more detail, more depth. Hyperlocality. Small “j” journalism. Faits divers. For us here in the Northwest hills of Georgia, where there is no local TV station, this would mean high school football, local politics, cycling and churches. Lots and lots and lots of it. (As Curley points out in his response, this doesn’t mean forgoing enterprise pieces or big “J” journalism; it does mean knowing what “local” means to your publication and out-localing everyone else.)

>>And one not in Curley’s playbook but fairly obvious: embrace social networking. YouTube, MySpace, FaceBook, filesharing, blogs, Flickr . . . All are about social networking, mingling, connecting and sharing. Participation, conversation and interaction. This is the new ethos, a communal ethos. It has little to do with the command-and-control, top-down, “trust us” model of mainstream news media. It is exciting. Thrilling. It is the future, and the future is now, which is where the fear comes in.

The future of journalism

November 27, 2006

Hyperlocality, entrepreneurship and how journalists are educated

digital man

The question that has made more of a claim on my head and heart during the past month or so than any other: How do we prepare our journalism students for an entire career, not merely for the job market when they enter it?

This question has to do with a timeline of something like 2010 to2040, not one that looks only at, for example, May 2007, when another crop of freshly minted grads flow into the job force. What should we be doing to ready them for their careers?

As I look back on my undergraduate experence at UNC, certainly the grounding in the basics of journalism, newswriting, writing in general, editing, and a care of and for the language communicated by dedicated educators like Jim Shumaker, Val Lauder, Harry Amana, Margaret Blanchard and Don Shaw — these are the things that are still with me.

But as I consider the rafts of small media startups, as I think about microcontent, narrowcasting, the explosion of blogs, the de-massifying of audiences, of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, I cannot help but think that this generation’s grads need a better grounding in entrepreneurship. Blasphemy? Hear me out.

The days of slogging away in the salt mines of one company for an entire career are so gone. I have several students from last May who since have launched their own companies, including two video production companies and a Web-based graphics design house. How to run a business, how to get financial backing, marketing and management — these are new skill sets our communication majors need, and they could serve them for their whole careers. What do you think?

Journalism in, of and for Second Life

November 26, 2006

Can there be “news” worth printing from a virtual world?

(forgive all the quotation marks, but something has to demarcate virtual from real . . . or does it?)

Join Second Life Now

Two recent developments inside Second Life makes my head nearly explode. First, Reuters has assigned a reporter to the virtual world, a reporter whose avatar covers its beat for the rest of us here in the real world. That’s right, Adam Pasick’s beat doesn’t physically exist, yet it has 1.6 million “residents.” It is the first known instance of a real-world news organization assigning a full-time reporter to a virtual world or online game.


Adam Reuters

Reuters’s Adam Pasick, a.k.a. Adam Reuters He has chronicled how real people are making real money in and off SL. More recently, Pasick reported on the SL developers who collectivelyl are making more than $10 million a year in U.S. currency (not the Lindens that are the coin in SL).

In between reports, Adam is busy building a bureau for Reuters on one of SL’s islands, aiming for a look resembling the New York Times building in New York City.

Second, the publisher of Germany’s No. 1 Bild newspaper is getting ready to launch a weekly newspaper for Second Life’s virtual population. Called “SL News” and written in English, the “paper” will “publish” “news” from SL as if SL were a physical place. Bild will build an editorial office in SL, which will be used to solicit contributions from SL’s residents.

What do you call citizen journalism submitted by avatars on news from a virtual world?

I think I know what these moves say about SL. It’s big, and it is going to get a lot bigger. It combines social networking with game-quality graphics and the ability to interact with other people in new, exciting and even troubling ways. I’m not sure what it says about journalism, though of course if people are making news in SL, and they are, then journalists need to “be” “there”.

One important factor: Second Life is privately owned, by Linden Labs in San Francisco. It’s not Central Park or the public square. Norms and rules are only now being negotiated, so let’s watch how SL sorts itself out, but a real-world analogy would be DisneyWorld. No journalism in there, a locked down, commercial dictatorship. So how freely will Pasick and Bild be able to roam and report?

More to come. Much, much more.

File-sharing’s effects on music sales

November 26, 2006

Who should we believe? The RIAA or empirical data?

As part of a larger discussion on copyright, we (JoMC 711) recently discussed RIAA claims that file-sharing and illegal downloading are directly responsible for lost music sales. In fact, the RIAA blamed file-sharing for its nearly 11% drop in sales in 2002, even though due to 9/11, the entire economy was down in 2002.

I’ve long believed that most downloads are of songs that would not be purchased under any circumstances. On the contrary, I believe that the more we are exposed to, the more we likely will indeed buy, having benefited from sampling a little of this and a little of that. It’s why Indian restaurants have buffets. If we could try a little lemongrass soup and the curry of the day, we might come back and buy a lot. By being able to listen to one song by a band we’ve never heard of, we might find we really dig it and decide to plunk down the money to buy a CD or a lot of songs by that band.

My students in JoMC 711 unearthed evidence that in fact, file-sharing does likely boost music sales rather than dilute from them. Rebekah Radische found the 2004 paper, “The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales An Empirical Analysis” (warning: PDF download), by Harvard’s Felix Oberholzer and Kansas U’s Koleman Strumpf. They concluded that:

“. . . file sharing has no statistically significant effect on purchases of the average album in our sample. Moreover, the estimates are of rather modest size when compared to the drastic reduction in sales in the music industry. At most, file sharing can explain a tiny fraction of this decline. This result is plausible given that movies, software, and video games are actively downloaded, and yet these industries have continued to grow since the advent of file sharing.”

More evidence from C|Net

Another student wondered why the RIAA would make such a big deal about lost sales, even resorting to suing its own customers by the thousands, if there wasn’t some fire in the middle of all that smoke. Hmm… Maybe it is because we resent an $18 price when we know the disk required only about $1 to produce? Maybe it is because the RIAA is so entrenched, so afraid of change and loss of control, that it is willing to recklessly sue dead people and grandmothers rather than adapt and change.

It all is reminiscent of the oligopolistic big distribution companies’ reaction to radio, which they believed would kill sales. Of course the effect was the opposite. Major League Baseball fought televised broadcasts of its games, fearing that folks would stay home and not want to go to the ballpark. The league actually restricted ABC to two cameras for fear that too much realism would siphon off ticket sales. It’s not about “piracy” and “theft” and the erosion of our national moral fiber. It’s about controalbuml and money-grubbing greed.

Second Life Commerce

November 24, 2006

Real people making real money in virtual world

A recent article put out by Columbia (University) News Service, by Christy Nicholson, documents the stories of some real folks plying their trades entirely Second Life, and getting U.S. currency for it.

Some of the stories:

Dr. Craig Kerley, a licensed psychologist, leads a virtual therapy group in Second Life. He says he has 400 patients using this forum.

Tateru Nino, an avatar, is considered a social celebrity in Second Life. Her creator says the game has helped her overcome the debilitating shyness caused by Asperger’s syndrome.

Baccara Rhodes, whose avatar is, shall we say, healthy, is considered one of the best virtual wedding planners in Second Life, according to Nicholson. Her real life creator, Nanci Schenkein, was a successful events planner before multiple sclerosis forced her to retire.


Shannon Grei, left, a single mom who makes real money selling digital fashion designs through her avatar Munchflower Zaius, right, in Second Life. (From Columbia News Service, courtesy of Shannon Grei).

According to Nicholson, Grei, through her avatar, has created new looks for the likes of the singer Suzanne Vega, the author Kurt Vonnegut and Sen. John Edwards. Grei is a 29-year-old single mother from Medford, Ore., according to the story. Selling virtual fashions, she has made enough real money to pay off her debts, leave her husband and, as Nicholson notes, actually start a second life. She says she is making more money than she ever dreamed of.”

>>much more on Grei on the Second Life blog

Nino’s story is equally compelling, and it has me thinking about pedagogy. I have a student with Asperger’s — at least I think she has Asperger’s. Her social skills and ability to meaningfully contribute in the classroom are very limited, and I’m understating the situation. I’m not saying we ditch the classroom, but I am thinking that Second Life offers potential supplement to the classroom for certain applications and for some students. It’s worth a try. I’ve been using blogs in my classes for some time, and it really does give voice to those who do not share inside the physical classroom.

I will contemplate this virtual world’s teaching applications. If you know of any, please let me know. One of my students, Andy Donnan, in a previous post identified a photography class being conducted in Second Life. I’ve got to check it out. Visual design and media design would seem to have natural applications.

Getting a Second Life

November 23, 2006

Virtual world is taking the real one by storm

I’ve mentioned Second Life in class several times, so it occurred to me I should put a post together that summarizes what I’m seeing on this juggernaut of an online “game.”

I put “game” in quotes because it’s not really something you “play”, nor is it a competition in the purest sense, though in gathering “lindens”, or the virtual money it takes real money to buy, it is a competition in the same way that capitalism is.

I digress. I’ve told my undergraduate classes that Second Life is the next Big Idea, and in so many ways, for so many reasons. Last weekend, I took the plunge, created an avatar and began exploring Second Life. It is overwhelming, and I could feel the claws of addiction begin sinking into my flesh.

But I’m not interested in it as an amusement; I’m watching closely because of how big business is embracing this new world. Companies such as Vera Wang, Sony, Intel, Audi and Nissan and Pontiac are using it to test and prototype products, ad slogans and branding techniques, all at a fraction of the cost of product development and consumer research in the physical world. These applications have driven Second Life’s population to 1.6 million users from 105,000 in less than a year.


Out there? Perhaps, but I will give an example of utilizing Second Life that is supremely rational. Starwood Hotels, which owns Westin and Sheraton, is prototyping and marketing a new midpriced, loft-style hotel chain exclusively on Second Life. (Oh, and by the way, Starwood set up a blog to engage potential customers and get them in on the planning of the new division.)

The virtual hotel launch is giving Starwood input on, among other things, what types of interiors and furniture people gravitate towards and which ones are ignored. In one mini-market test, several different fabrics were draped over ottomans in the hotel’s bar area to see which ones Second Life “residents” liked or responded to.

Another real-world application is the way Leo Burnett’s employees teleconference using Second Life. Married with Skype VoIP, the virtual world affords Leo Burnett with a meeting room and the visual tools that do a pretty good job simulating a real-world board meeting or conference.

Much more to come on Second Life, specifically on Second Life and distributed journalism, but before I go, a shout out to one of my students, Andy Donnan, who today posted his thoughts and even photography from his travels inside Second Life. (Think about this: I’m blogging about Andy’s blog post detailing the travels of his avatar, which took pictures during his/its tour.)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.